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A puzzle on juvenile sentencing


Most of the time, when the Supreme Court sends a case back to a lower court for a further look, the task for the lower court is clear.   But the Justices have left the California courts with little guidance on what to do now with a case involving a teenager convicted for his role in gang-related, drive-by shootings that left three people dead six years ago.   The case involves a youth, seventeen at the time, who received three sentences of life without parole — to run one after the other — plus added prison terms.

Depending upon how California courts react, the case of Michael Angelo Mauricio of Compton, California, might well lead to added protection for minors convicted of murder.  The case is Mauricio v. California (docket 11-10139).

What is at issue in his case is what the Supreme Court meant last month, when it ordered California’s Second District Court of Appeal to reconsider the sentences for Mauricio, focusing on the Court’s decision last Term in Miller v. Alabama (docket 10-9646).  The Miller decision barred life-without-parole sentences for minors convicted of murder, but appeared to be limited to cases in which that sentence was mandatory.   The puzzlement in Mauricio’s case is that, under California law, life without parole was not mandatory.

Mauricio apparently was a member of the Ward Lane Crips gang in Compton, rivals to other local street gangs, including the Lueders Park Pirus.    According to prosecutors, Mauricio was the driver on November 6, 2006, when a black car drove alongside Jeffrey Shade, a Lueders Park member, as he rode on a bicycle.  He was shot dead, apparently by a passenger in the car.   About two weeks later, Mauricio was again the driver when a car drove by a bus stop, and a passenger fired multiple shots at two people there, Shudray Jenkins and Deaundre Hunt, killing both.

Two weeks later, police arrested Mauricio and other Ward Lane Crips members as they sat, armed with a rifle, in a parked car.   He told the officers that the group was planning retaliation, because they believed that someone from another rival gang, the Holly Hood Pirus, had been involved in a shooting of friends of the Ward Lane Crips.   The group was in the Holly Hood neighborhood at the time of the arrest, looking for someone to shoot, according to the police account.

Mauricio was convicted later of three counts of first-degree murder, with special circumstances that led to added punishment.  He was sentenced to three consecutive life-without-parole sentences, plus three consecutive terms of twenty-five years to life.  Upholding those sentences, the Second District Court of Appeal last year rejected Mauricio’s legal claim that it was unconstitutional, because of his youth, for the judge to opt for life-without-parole sentences when the judge had the discretion under state law to instead impose twenty-five-to-life sentences.

The appeals court said that, under California law, life without parole was the “presumptive punishment” for murder by a minor in the circumstances involved in Mauricio’s crimes, but that the law also said that, “at the discretion of the court,” the sentence could be twenty-five to life.   Mauricio’s lawyers contended that a judge was obliged to use that discretion, in a case like his, and thus to give the less stringent sentence.   In addition, his lawyers contended that, in any event, life without parole was cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment when imposed on a minor.

In its ruling last November, the California court said the trial judge had “looked at all relevant factors and then came down on the side of the more severe punishment based on the nature of the crimes. This was not an abuse of judicial discretion….We understand that Mauricio was only 17 years old, that he did not have a prior criminal record, and that he was not an actual shooter.  This does not mean that the nature of the crimes could not outweigh the circumstances.”  Separately, the state court turned aside Mauricio’s cruel-and-unusual-punishment claim.

Mauricio’s court-appointed lawyer, Joanna McKim of San Diego, took his case on to the Supreme Court last May.  At that time, the Court was considering the Miller case, testing the constitutionality of life-without-parole sentences for minors convicted of murder.  The petition urged the Court to hold the petition until after it decided Miller.  State officials declined to reply to the petition, but the Supreme Court asked for a response in July.   By the time deputy state attorney general Thomas Hsieh of Los Angeles filed a brief in opposition in September, the Justices had decided the Miller case.

The California filing urged the Court to simply deny review.   It noted explicitly that the Miller decision only barred life without parole for a juvenile convicted of murder when that sentence was mandatory.  “California’s sentencing scheme is not mandatory but instead permits a trial court to exercise its discretion to impose a punishment other than LWOP,” its brief said.  Moreover, the state contended that the trial judge considered Mauricio’s age “and other mitigating circumstances” before opting for LWOP.   The Miller decision, the filing said, did not even apply to this case.

Thus, when the Justices took up the Mauricio petition in October, the only things they had before them were the Mauricio petition, the state court ruling, and the state’s brief; there was no reply from Mauricio.  They had seen enough in the petition and in the state court decision, though, to lead them to ask for a response from the state.   And, although the state’s filing pointed out that California’s law was different from the Alabama law at issue in Miller, that apparently was not enough to persuade the Court to simply deny Mauricio’s plea.

The Court majority’s opinion in Miller repeatedly stressed that it was dealing with LWOP as a mandatory matter.  Noting that prior precedents had required courts in juvenile sentencing cases to take into account “that juveniles are less culpable than adults,” Justice Elena Kagan’s opinion said that “the mandatory penalty schemes at issue here prevent the sentencer from taking account of these central considerations.  By removing youth from the balance — by subjecting a juvenile to the same life-without-parole sentence applicable to an adult — these laws prohibit a sentencing authority from assessing whether the law’s harshest term of imprisonment proportionately punishes a juvenile offender.”

The opinion went on to say that, for a minor, a life-without-parole sentence was in some ways the equivalent of a death sentence.   Prior rulings on death sentencing, it added, have required that those facing such punishment “have an opportunity to advance, and the judge or jury a chance to assess, any mitigating factors,” so that the punishment “is reserved only for the most culpable defendants committing the most serious offenses.”

But what did those admonitions mean, in the face of a state appeals court ruling that had said explicitly that the sentencing judge had, in fact, taken Mauricio’s youth into account, had examined his role in the murders, and had weighed whether his case deserved the more severe punishment of LWOP?  The remand order did not say.  Still, the case was sent back to the state court, leaving it to figure out how to react.

Here are some of the possibilities that might develop in the wake of the Court’s order:

** Satisfied that it and the trial judge had done everything that Miller seemed to require,  the state appeals court could simply say that, and again uphold the life-without-parole sentences.

** Or it could go over the record of Mauricio’s sentencing hearing in greater detail, and decide whether the sentencer had probed the factors deeply enough, and then make up its mind anew on the sentences.

** Or it could order the trial judge to hold a new hearing, and gather new facts about Mauricio, about his personal life story, and about his relationship with the gang and with the crimes — a proceeding perhaps separate from a conventional sentencing hearing, a sort of for-juveniles-only proceeding.

** Or, to the considerable benefit of youths like Mauricio, it could read into the Miller decision a requirement that, when life without parole is not mandatory but is the “presumptive punishment” for youthful murderers, that, too, undermines the validity of LWOP sentences for minors.

** Or, going further than the Supreme Court itself seemed prepared to go, it could conclude that what the Supreme Court really meant to say in Miller was that LWOP sentences just are too harsh for juvenile offenders, whether such a sentence is mandatory or not.

Both sides, presumably, can be expected to file new briefs in the state appeals court, offering their own interpretations of what Miller meant.   Because the case has not yet technically been sent back to the state court, no new filings have yet been made in the case.

(The blog thanks Arizona reader Alexandr Satanovsky for alerting us to the potentially broader meaning in the Court’s remand order last month.  He has his own post on this development, found here.)






Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, A puzzle on juvenile sentencing, SCOTUSblog (Nov. 16, 2012, 5:20 PM),